As I sit down to write this, my city, Delhi, is burning in the worst communal violence in decades, triggered by a bitterly polarising citizenship law. Schools and shops lie charred, smoke coiling up from them like snakes. Bodies, battered or dead on arrival, are piling up in overwhelmed hospitals. Terrified people from the minority Muslim community are fleeing their homes. A Hindu man is fighting for his life, his body melted with 70% burns which he received while trying to save his Muslim neighbours. Children have been turned into rod-carrying vigilantes. Journalists doing their job are being asked to strip to prove their religion.
Read this story in a minute.
My city is burning. That sentence makes me squirm. They are burning my city. Those are the words I want to write. It is exhausting to resist the urge to scream at "THEM" – the politicians who pushed the city to the edge with their poisonous speeches, the keepers of law and order and the dispensers of care who toyed with the victims’ trauma, the cowards who burnt an old woman to death in her home and dumped a young man’s body in a drain.
Right now, the most morally urgent question is that of guilt. Find a "them" who did this to "us". Pick a side. Call out the people in power who turned the city into a war zone. People like me, shielded by our privilege, must join in this exercise of pinning guilt or risk complicity. My stomach churns with the fear that if I don’t throw every ounce of energy I possess at it, I mock those who lost everything.
But there is a different fear that comes with being consumed by the question of guilt. It is the fear of paralysis. Of being stuck in a nightmare playing on loop with no way to move forward. This is the fear my city must reckon with as it starts the soul-sapping task of picking up the pieces.
Four months ago, when I started exploring the phenomenon of guilt as my first project for The Correspondent, I was preoccupied with the inward variety of guilt - self-blame. In part, my motivation lay in my personal struggles with guilt, which my therapist had named a key ingredient of my long tryst with depression.
But soon, things happened that changed my relationship with guilt. As politicians in my country openly spewed hate, as the Earth’s poles started to melt at a rate never before seen in history, as a virus killed thousands, I became more interested in the mechanics of locating blame outside of the individual. It seemed only fair – and liberating – that we find something else, someone else, altogether bigger than us to blame for these gratuitous tragedies.
Establishing guilt, we’ve been taught, is the first step to finding justice. The entire justice system stems from that logic. But justice as defined by law books does not guarantee healing. And for communities to recover from episodes of unspeakable pain, determining guilt and distributing punishment - while often a necessary starting point - isn’t enough.
The key to real healing lies in a misunderstood idea that I discovered anew over the course of my work: forgiveness.
How I rediscovered forgiveness
A few weeks into my series, a member of The Correspondent introduced me to someone who has spent his entire life mulling how human beings can transcend the pursuit of guilt without undermining justice. Not a philosopher or a theologian, but a scientist.
Fred Luskin from Stanford University has worked extensively with victims of devastating violence, including mothers of young people killed in religious conflict. One of them from Northern Ireland, whose son’s body was discovered in a bog 21 years after his disappearance, said before meeting Luskin: "If I’d known who [my son’s] killers were, I would have gone out and killed their children. I wanted them to know how it felt."
Two decades ago, Luskin – himself hurting from a deep betrayal by a friend – had demonstrated that teaching such people how to forgive their offenders could lead to a statistically significant decrease in symptoms of depression and stress and an increase in optimism. For instance, the mother who was earlier obsessed with revenge said after sitting through Luskin’s forgiveness training: "I feel no more pain. What’s happened in the past is past."
Luskin’s training proved equally effective in the civil war-ravaged West African country of Sierra Leone, where participants showed dramatically improved benevolent attitudes towards their offenders.
But impressed as I was by all the evidence, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that asking victims to forgive their oppressors is wrong. It goes against the principles of justice. To be fair, when I interviewed him, Luskin stressed that victims cannot be pushed into the journey of forgiveness until they have grieved their loss. Embracing forgiveness after that is about "saying yes I was hurt, yes it has disrupted my life, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes – and I choose to forgive and move on. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way life is".
The mother who was earlier obsessed with revenge said after sitting through Luskin’s forgiveness training: ‘I feel no more pain. What’s happened in the past is past’
Still, his stance made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t see beyond the fact that asking victims to "move on" is adding egregious insult to injury. And what did he mean by "it’s nobody’s fault"? How could one even say these things with a straight face to a mother whose only reason to stay alive is to see her son’s murderers suffer?
Luskin’s response to my questions made me see the relationship between guilt, forgiveness and justice in a way I’d never seen before.
Most people don’t really want true justice, he said. They want merely what’s good for them.
"Justice is the rebalancing of the scales, and forgiveness is inner healing," he added. "When we started the programme, we used to tell people all the time: forgive your ex, but make sure they pay your spousal support. Forgive them but push them to go to jail if they need to. Release your hurt, but make sure they fulfil the worldly consequences of their action.”
Luskin got me to consider that forgiveness isn’t anti-justice. The two can coexist - and for the sake of sanity in a world that does too much wrong and carries too much guilt, they must.
Without forgiveness, there is no community
My newfound conviction about the power of forgiveness was reinforced by another member of The Correspondent. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer says he has also been thinking deeply about these issues but with a very different motivation: in preparation for impending parenthood.
Bendik-Keymer, who is a philosopher and ethics researcher, agrees that forgiveness is separable from justice and accountability. "To forgive is not to condone the wrongdoing," he wrote in a contribution.
"Seeking to forgive underlines that one did not contribute to the wrongdoing. In forgiving, one is releasing the other of the claim one has against them, of the wrong done to oneself. One isn’t condoning the kind of thing that was wrong, but healing the relation – or at least giving it new possibility.
One can do this honestly and without contravening justice by holding open the moral possibility of the one who wronged: this person would have done better if they had [fill in the blank]. Or: this person has the potential to do the right thing. They made a [grave] mistake."
Learning to forgive yourself doesn’t mean you whitewash the wrong you did. It means you believe that you still have ‘the potential to do the right thing’ – Bendik-Keymer
Bendik-Keymer’s insight lifted a load off my chest because so much of it holds true for self-blame too. Learning to forgive yourself doesn’t mean you whitewash the wrong you did. It means you believe that you still have "the potential to do the right thing".
But it is something else Bendik-Keymer said that I now lean on every day, as my city looks to rebuild the tattered trust among citizens: forgiveness restores the social world bit by bit, and that in turn has a restorative effect on human beings.
“Forgiveness is a necessary condition on there being a true community. There’s no real community until people have worked through wrong, the condition [for] which is ultimately forgiveness.”
An uplifting story from Delhi
I still feel uncomfortable talking about forgiveness just as my city begins to make sense of the full toll of the violence that visited it. It feels ... too soon. But maybe I needn’t worry. A story that went viral during the riots shows that forgiveness can begin to do the work of healing communities while simultaneously preparing the path for justice - and that humans are capable of this delicate balance even while fighting each other’s worst instincts.
In a clip circulated online a couple of days ago, a young man could be seen shouting "Jai Sri Ram" – a slogan extolling a Hindu god, frequently used as a war cry by Hindutva mobs – and hurling abuse and stones at people we can assume are Muslims. In a later video, the same man sits on his haunches in a dark place, looking guilty, frightened and dazed, circled by a group of men, presumably Muslim.
But these men don’t want revenge or instant justice. They reveal that they have in fact rescued the young man from angry rioters.
"We could have killed him if we wanted to, but we saved him risking our lives," says one of them. "We didn’t lay a finger on him because we are all brothers here. Now, we will hand him over to the police."